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November 21, 2017

Book Notes - Richard F. Thomas "Why Bob Dylan Matters"

Why Bob Dylan Matters

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Richard F. Thomas's Why Bob Dylan Matters is a must-read book for fans of the recent Nobel Laureate, one that examines the legitimacy of Dylan's lyrics as poetry through the eyes of both an academic and fan.

Mary Beard wrote of the book:

"At last an expert classicist gets to grips with Bob Dylan. Richard Thomas takes us from Dylan's high school Latin club to his haunting engagement with Ovid and Homer in recent albums. Thomas carefully argues that Dylan's poetry deserve comparison with Virgi'’s—and Thomas, senior professor of Latin at Harvard and author of some of the most influential modern studies of Virgil, should know!"

In his own words, here is Richard F. Thomas's Book Notes music playlist for his book Why Bob Dylan Matters:

In Why Bob Dylan Matters, which grows out of a freshman seminar I have taught at Harvard University every four years since 2004, and following on the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I trace the ways Dylan's art has become the classic of our time, already freed from the periods and events which may have been his songs' original impulses. Dylan was always a part of the old traditions that go back though the folk songs of English, Scottish and American oral traditions. In the last twenty years he has been consciously reworking even older literary themes, getting us back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, to Homer and Virgil, "uncovering these long dead souls from their crumblin' tombs," as he put it in the song "Rollin' and Tumblin" on the 2006 album Modern Times. Those words are themselves stolen from the exiled Roman poet Ovid. Most but not all of my songs are naturally enough Bob Dylan songs. I select some others that bring out the variety in the art of his songwriting.

PS This is not my top fifteen list.

Boots of Spanish Leather
Written while his girlfriend Suze Rotolo was off studying art in Italy in late 1962, this song has an intense personal feel, even though the absent girl of the song is visiting the mountains of Madrid and the coast of Barcelona. But it doesn't matter if you don't know about the ultimate impulse of the song in the life of the young Bob Dylan, moping about in Greenwich Village. What matters here is the timeless art of the song, a back and forth between the singer and the girl he is trying to persuade to come back to him.

Changing of the Guards
Anticipating the born-again Christian phase of Dylan in 1979–80, and looking back to when it all started in the words of the opening verse—"Sixteen years …"—this song gives a glimpse into what was about to happen, as "Eden is burning" in the second-to-last verse. But that would be too simple, and particularly in a draft of the song, Dylan here in 1978 enters into a relationship with the world of the pagan gods of Rome, and its greatest poet Virgil, one of the "souls of previous times" that will stay with him down through the years. The woman in the song who is "torn between Jupiter and Apollo" points to Virgil's Messianic poem that readers through the years saw as predicting the birth of Christ.

Early Roman Kings
Roman history buffs, myself included, were looking forward to hearing Dylan sing about Romulus and the other kings of ancient Rome when the title of this song was announced. Turned out the "sluggers and muggers" of the third verse looked more like the 1960s "Roman Kings," a Latino gang in New York City. But wait a minute! The second verse has them "coming down the mountain, distributing the corn," just like those old Roman kings. Things get weird a verse or two later, when the singer turns into Homer's Odysseus taunting the one-eyed Cyclops he has just blinded. This song, a regular in performance since it came out on the superb 2012 album Tempest, shows Dylan moving across centuries and millennia as he juxtaposes allusions and creates worlds outside of time, going back to the font of Western literature.

Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust
"You who're so good with words, and at keeping things vague." This song gets us quite close to Dylan, through the eyes of one who shared much with him. Even if some lines in the song ("Yes the Madonna was your for free, the girl on the half-shell") might seem to affirm what Joanie herself reports ("My poetry was lousy you said"), the song is a beautiful record, from the vantage of their more mature 30s, of a relationship of two figures who in their early 20s were giving us so much. Written in November 1974, the year before Baez joined Bob on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76, the song comes into relief in those memorable performances.

"My heart's in the Highlands" begins this long song from the 1979 comeback album, Time Out of Mind—so quoting verbatim the first words of a song by Scottish folksong writer and poet from the eighteenth-century, Robert Burns. The singer then enters the world of the twentieth century, listening to Neil Young, in some restaurant in Boston town, looking for an exit from the rat-race, finally getting to a highlands of the imagination. In performance Dylan juxtaposed the song with the 1975 classic "Tangled Up in Blue," to which it referred, regretting the passage of thirty years as the singer finds himself in a world gone wrong.

Recorded for Time Out of Mind, but wisely held back for four years, this song is one of the strongest on the 2001 album Love and Theft. It is one of those songs that doesn't give too many details about the trouble the singer finds himself in: "Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long." The plaintive, bluesy character that Dylan's voice creates is a thing of beauty.

Workingman's Blues #2
#2 because Merle Haggard, who opened for Dylan in 2005 concerts wrote a song "Workingman's Blues." But that's about it for similarities. Put out the next year, and two years before the 2008 economic crash and global recession, it turns Dylan into a prophet: "The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak … They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad." After that opening the song starts reworking Roman poet Ovid and US Confederate poet Henry Timrod, as readers soon realized. In performance versions Homer replaced Ovid, a striking case study of how Dylan's visions and revisions go on before, during and after the studio sessions, as his intricate allusions make him look like another T. S. Eliot.

Woody Guthrie, Columbus Stockade
Dylan was singing this, along with other Guthrie songs, in Greenwich Village in 1961 and 1962. He also stole the melody for a song, never recorded, to an early girlfriend who moved to California while he was back in Minnesota at the end of 1961. He seems to have been upset, but not too upset to rewrite the song whose words are in the voice of the prisoner in the stockade whose girl has left him.

Tryin' to Get to Heaven
This song from the 1997 album Time Out of Mind is a virtuoso feat of intertextual genius. Dylan stitches a dozen fragments of other songs from his folk, blues and gospel storehouse. Nobody but Bob Dylan could produce such a beautiful, melancholic and reflective story out of these fragments. The singer, "goin' down the road feeling bad," and "goin' down the river, down to New Orleans," is in a bad way in this song that is brilliantly backed in performance by the outstanding band, that with little turnover has been adding so much to Dylan's songs for the last twenty years.

The Beatles, Norwegian Wood
What did John Lennon think as Dylan played the 1966 sang "Fourth Time Around" to the Beatle in whom Dylan recognized competition while always insistent on his own primacy. That song clearly alludes to, and arguably parodies, this Beatles song, which was put out weeks earlier. "I never asked for your crutch, now don't ask for mine." Such playful parody would continue, particularly in the Basement Tapes, the informal sessions with the Band, as in the hilarious "Clothes Line Saga," a take-off of the popular but in hindsight pretty vapid pop song, "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry.

Bob Dylan's Dream
One of the fruits of Bob Dylan's first trip out of the US, when he went to act in a BBC TV movie, Madhouse on Castle Street. While that venture was apparently not too successful, it provided Dylan with the opportunity to meet and play with British folk singer Martin Carthy. One of the songs he learned was the nineteenth-century tune "Lady Franklin's Lament" about the loss at sea of Lord Franklin. As he would continue to do in complex ways, Dylan, aged 21 and far from home in the dark London winter, would compose new lyrics about the old friends he's "never seen again."

When I Paint My Masterpiece
"Oh the streets of Rome, they're filled with rubble.' So goes the song that shows Dylan has thought about the city of Rome more than any other, not just the Colisseum, but the city he studied when he took Latin as a sophomore at Hibbing High School and participated in the Latin Club. His first visit there, in January 1963, produced a song, never recorded but long available in a bootleg tape from Gerdes' Folk City in Greenwich Village in the following weeks. The refrain, "Goin' back to Rome, that's where I was born," conveys the spiritual connection he has long felt for the Eternal City.

Desolation Row
Dylan's carnivalesque assortment of camouflaged characters are paraded through this song that shows Dylan was as brilliant creating personas for the people he encountered in the explosive first three or four years of his career. The song should be a warning not to construct too much along autobiographical lines from Dylan's songs, where his imagination is always in the driver's seat: "I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name." A favorite in recent tours it shows, as do the 1960s classics "Chimes of Freedom" and "Mr. Tambourine Man", how much Dylan was taking from French Symbolist poets, especially Arthur Rimbaud, in these years.

Tin Angel
The ballad has been in Dylan's blood from early on, and his clear-voiced 1962 version of "Barbara Allen," a song known in the seventeenth century, is in stark contrast to some of the gospel and blues material he put out that year on his first album. "Tin Angel" from 2012 provides a good example of how Dylan creates ballad forms. Start with a line from Woody Guthrie—"It was late last night when the boss came home enquiring about his lady"—then let it go where Dylan's imagination takes it, by way of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.

Chimes of Freedom
In the early 1960s folksinger Dave Van Ronk sang the chorus of "Chimes of Trinity" to Bob Dylan. The sentimental ballad, written in 1895 by M. J. Fitzpatrick, was a favorite of Van Ronk's grandmother, like her grandson a native of New York, and presumably a member of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Dylan stole the melody of the chorus and rewrote the lyrics, though the original is recognizable in lines 5–8 of each chorus. He then composed his own words for lines 1–4, and here he seems to have gone to the surreal poetry of Rimbaud's contemptuous poem "Poor People in Church." Dylan's song of empathy utterly transforms this source, creating his own surreal lyrics, a hymn to the "mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute," and others in whose cause the chimes of freedom are now tolling.

Richard F. Thomas and Why Bob Dylan Matters links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Library Journal review
NPR Books review

Gotham essay by the author
Harvard Crimson interview with the author
Maxim list by the author of his favorite Dylan songs

also at Largehearted Boy:

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